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16 July 2011

Book Review Have Spacesuit Will Travel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Read it in a day;  wondered aloud how the world has changed that a book like this could have been published in a magazine for boys.  I mean, there was math, for cripes sake!  And physics!  And mechanical engineering!  And no gratuitous violence!

There was violence, yes, but Heinlein seems to think math is more exciting than gore;  indeed, his palpable excitement concerning all things mathematical was almost contagious.  Almost.  His in-depth descriptions of mechanical properties were engaging, if only to make me wish I understood crap like that.  I also wished I had built a radio at some point in my development.  And then I wondered why I hadn't built a radio.  And then I wondered if my kid would ever build a radio.

Very 1950s but maybe that's what made it engaging.  Words like "swell" cuddled up with formulas and mechanical concepts of spacesuit design.   A very antiquated concept of gender roles in one instance (there is an alien "Mother-Thing" who has that reassuring presence of a good mother, as well as "father- things" who don't spend much time with you and don't say much but leave you feeling like you need to prove something to them and succeed so that he will proud) cuddled up with a brilliant female heroine and the idea that the "Mother-Thing" wasn't necessarily female.

A book that put you firmly in a place, late 1950s America, and then took you firmly to a place that was "other" but still viewed through the lens of 1950s America.  I kept finding myself thinking of that scene in Back to the Future where Marty visits George dressed in a haz-mat suit and scares the bejeesus out of him using a Walkman and Van Halen.

The most lasting impression of the book is to marvel at the great intelligence of those human beings who have created space flight and who wrestle with formulas with Xs and zeds and lots of zeros. For fun.  And then to imagine that they know nothing in the grand scheme of things.  And if they know nothing, what the hell do I know?  Whoa.

15 July 2011

Book Review The Wee Free Men

The Wee Free Men (Discworld, #30)The Wee Free Men by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is my first Terry Pratchett.  I loved it for the first half;  the clever language, the fresh way of looking at things. But then the main character fell into the proverbial rabbit hole and it all got too Narnia-Wrinkle-in-Time hallucinatory.   It would have been fine to dip into the LSD but Pratchett stayed there too long for my tastes;  it kept going. And going.  And is it still going?  What? That's not the denouement of the winter-queen-dream-world?  Crap.

He won me back in the last few chapters, though.  And now I'm wondering if all of his books are more like the first third of this one or like the second third;  here's hoping the it's the first.

My kid will probably love it;  someday.   But he needs to develop a little more intellectual focus first.  And that's saying something.

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14 July 2011

Book Review The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square

The Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times SquareThe Devil's Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square by James Traub
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

What is it with folks who write for the New Yorker publishing books that claim to be stand-alone works but are, in actuality, simply a collection of the articles they've written for the New Yorker, expanded and stitched together with rough yarn?

All of that said, I enjoyed the read immensely, regardless of the patchwork feel of the thing.  Traub does a nice job of presenting the history of Times Square (if a little spotty on some of the details of certain, "uninteresting" eras)

One feels nostalgic for the bygone era before television killed the urban gathering place.  A gathering like the two million who congregated in Times Square on August 14, 1945 would now likely take place on Fox News, CNN and Facebook.  And one feels the loss of that sense of community.

One also realizes that "Broadway" is a relatively modern invention.  And that it has never been about quality;  profit.  Always profit.  Traub writes, "It seems a strange irony that the quality of theatrical writing improved markedly as the cultural power of theater declined;  but perhaps it's no irony at all.  As Broadway lost its status as the proving ground for national culture, where plays were hatched to be distributed to the hustings, theater became an increasingly local medium, needing to please only a local, and of course, a sophisticated audience.  Movies took on the burden of suiting the lowest common denominator."

I disagreed with Traub's placement of the early musicals (ie Oklahoma) as literary schlock designed to peddle songs;  there is very little similarity to the kind of musicals that started with Oklahoma and the musical revues of decades prior, a mistake that shows Traub is thinking more as an urban historian than a music historian.

And Traub is of a mind that Times Square is now inauthentic because crime and vice are under control;  somehow, to Traub, a place is not real unless there are drug deals, arrests and porn.  "...vagrants and hustlers and prostitutes could not be tolerated, or accepted as the price of "authentic" urban life, if the streets were to be made welcoming to "respectable" folk ... [but] how could you eradicate whatever was pathological about 42nd Street and its environs without, at the same time, eliminating everything that made it worth caring about in the first place?"

I'm not a New Yorker, so I can't claim that I understand exactly where Traub is coming from and, intellectually, I see his point, but the idea that making a place safe kills its soul seems incongruous.  Perhaps cleaning it up creates a different soul.  But clean, safe and entertaining does not necessarily make a place soulless.  Except when it does.  Hmmm.

I also found highly amusing the genesis of the idea that Times Square meant lots of lights and signs;  there was a time when urban planning and zoning decried the signs as pure trash but now you cannot build in Times Square without including signs;  the rules are very strict.  The Great White Way must remain; though it is less white now, in many ways.

The main point of the second half of the book seems to be the development of our idea of populism and how it has changed over the years.  Sadly, populism is now corporate culture.  "Our idea of populism was whatever it is people would choose for entertainment in their spare time;  it required that we be non-judgemental," said Rebecca Robertson, a public official tasked with revitalizing Times Square in the 198os.  Traub goes on to comment, with obvious distaste, "Once you choose to be nonjudgmental in matters of taste, you will eventually find common ground with the equally nonjudgemental purveyors of mass culture."

So redevelopment planners are at a disadvantage;  "The 42nd Street Development Project was designed to make the block attractive to private developers, who would lease most of the space on the street.  Public officials would establish design guidelines, but the marketplace would decide who would occupy the space.  And the marketplace was going to supply the lowest common denominator."  So we get Applebee's and Toys R Us instead of "authentic" businesses.   Architect Kevin Kennon says, "The big problem that architects have faced is how to energize a public space.  So much of what used to be public activity has now been superceded by television, the Internet, videoconferencing.  You're trying to say that a life exists in the public realm that's not virtual;  but because that virtual part of us is so ingrained in us, we have to work with it in order to reengage the real world."  Traub goes on to elaborate; "So the task, in other words, was to revitalize that old sense of Times Square as an agora, a happy urban welter, even as entities like Morgan Stanley were turning Times Square into the central switchboard of the global information network - to harness the abstract, bit-stream world in the service of the face-to-face world that it seemed bent on eradicating."

People call this kind of development process "Disney-fying" a place but there's great irony in that Disney's true involvement in Times Square redevelopment is one of the most "authentic;"  Disney re-created the "archaic splendors of the New Amsterdam Theatre and has used it to present The Lion King, an exercise in avant-garde puppetry that has confounded the company's critics with its insistent modernity and its unmistakable stamp of individual authorship."  Yet Tom Schumacher, president of Disney Theatrical Group, says, "Personally, as a guy who supports the arts, works in the arts, spent my life doing it, for me personally to produce a play is very interesting, but when I think of what I need to do for the company, it makes sense to do things with a great return."  Disney and Clear Channel (responsible for most of the Broadway tours) "face issues of scale that necessarily change their calculations;  investments are not worth making if they can yield only a modest profit.  And the imperative of mass appeal sharply limits one's options, in theater as in every other art form ... neither Clear Channel nor Disney is likely to nudge theatergoers every far from their comfort zone, because there's simply not enough money in discomfort."

So art and profit will never meet.  And the entertainment that will survive will be the one that stuffs the most money into people's pockets.  And places like Times Square will always reflect that relationship between art, entertainment and profit.  For better.  Or for worse.

And one can't help but wonder how our current ideas of populism will fare;  perhaps someday, when populism is so virtual that there is no sense of carbon-based community,  we'll feel nostalgia for the big touring musicals and Applebees because at least, back in the day, people got out of their houses and saw each other in the flesh once in a while.  And then some urban planner will be tasked with recreating the suburban shopping mall as the great gathering place.  And it will be decried as inauthentic because you just can't bring back Claire's and Target without making them a parody of themselves.


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13 July 2011

Book Review The History of White People

The History of White PeopleThe History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When my kid was three, he came home from preschool and rattled on prosaically about a new friend who had just started school.  Then he got poetic; his new friend wore a red shirt, had curly hair and his skin was colored with a different crayon.

That's all race is to my kid; a matter of pigment.

Nell Irvin Painter's book, boldly and sensationally entitled A History of White People makes this same point but with many (many) more words and a lot of history backing it up.  Her main point seems to be "What we can see depends on what our culture has trained us to look for."  Hence race.

Slaves weren't always black, of course.  Even the word "slave" comes from "slav" because after the plague wiped out most of Europe, those kind and generous Christian Crusaders (an oxymoron for the ages) enslaved unfortunates in the Balkans.  The pilgrims, hailed as lovers of freedom, brought indentured servants with them;  all white.  The first US census didn't have a category for unfree white persons, though there were many.  But the simple fact that "free" needed to be a qualifier for the other categories (free white males, free white females) alludes to the nonfree status of many whites who were still in servitude.  Tracking the categories of each census probably makes for an interesting study (though Painter didn't not go into detail) about the genesis of race ideals in the United States.  Then we eventually get to the idea that one is not white if one's blood is tainted.  By the time Toqueville wrote Democracy in America this flight of odd fancy was fully developed;  Toqueville's traveling partner, Beaumont, also wrote a book that pointed out some of the hypocrisy of enslaved peoples in a country where all men are created equals;  "white Americans belong to a hereditary aristocracy by dint of a mythology driven by the notion of tainted blood and a belief in invisible ancestry."

Tracing the prejudice against immigrants is enlightening, too;  our bad guys keep changing. Those nasty hispanics were considered "white" for many years while the American people were harping on about the Irish Catholic dregs muddying up the pool.   Now Irish Catholics are perpetrating violence against hispanic immigrants.  Interesting.

Then there's the idea of racial purity;  in the 1850s, French aristocrat Gobineau wrote an essay about race that spoke warmly of racial mixing.  "...Gobineau says quite clearly that Africans contribute positively to the mixture of races in prosperous metropolitan centers by offering Dionysian gifts such as passion, dance, music, rhythm, lightheartedness, and sensuality.  Whites, for their part, contribute energy, action, perseverance, rationality, and technical aptitude."  While Gobineau obviously sees whites as superior, they still need the contributions of other races to best develop civilization.  Of course, Josiah Nott, who translated Gobineau's writings for distribution in English was denounced by Gobineau, as Nott took much of the positive language about nonwhite races out of the work.

Then there's anti-Semitism.  And head measurements.  And attempts to classify physical characteristics of each race.  A whole rigamarole.  Teddy Roosevelt freely spoke of "race suicide" and worried aloud about the declining birthrate among old-stock New Englanders. "If all our nice friends in Beacon Street, Newport, and Fifth Avenue, and Philadelphia, have one child, or no child at all, while all the Finnegans, Hooligans, Antonios, Mandelbaums and Rabinskis have eight, or nine, or ten - it's simply a question of the multiplication table.  How are you going to get away from it?"

But by the 1920s, race hysteria has become the sign of the weak-minded hypocrite;  Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby goes on quite a tear about whites being the dominant race, based on writings that were considered gospel just a few years before.  His tirade is met with winking flapper disdain;  he is "nothing but a boor whose Nordic chauvinism signals his boorishness."  And Irish Catholics were white and not a danger (using their intelligence to rock the system by actually voting and filling the government with people to lobby for their eventual inclusion as true Americans).

By the 1940s, the watchword was "cultural pluralism."  Henry Ford and his melting pot ran parallel to this, the idea that "ethnic types" would become Anglo-Saxons by giving up talismans of their culture and identity like language, clothing and food.  He even had a program at his engineered-society-car-manufacturing-plant where the ethnics would wear their native clothing and walk up stairs towards a huge paper-mache melting pot.  They would come out the other side in American clothing, waving American flags.  Reeducation at its finest. 

Notice Asians aren't even in the picture yet?  Yeah.  They were worse than blacks.  Until the 1960s;  now they are considered smarter and richer than native-born American whites.

And that's not even scratching the surface of what Painter is trying to convey.  Her subject is a big one and impossible to encapsulate in 400 pages.  Her lines of reasoning could also use a clearer sense of beginning, middle and end.  She structures her book chronologically and because she tried to cover so much information, points were potentially lost.  For example, she introduced Gobineau and Nott and then left them.  By the time she returned to Gobineau (to make the point that it was he that developed the word "Aryan" and it was another, more faithful translation that inspired the Nazis to adopt the term) you had forgotten who Gobineau was ... a chapter on Gobineau and how he was interpreted through time would have been more helpful.

And perhaps the whole book might have been structured that way; a chapter on the genesis of Irish Catholics.  A chapter on Jews in America.  Etc.

But, overall, a thoughtful book worth reading.

Or you could just read the following sentences and get the gist;  "Incessant human migration has made us all multiracial.  Nonetheless, poverty in a dark skin endures as the opposite of whiteness, driven by an age-old social yearning to characterize the poor as permanently other and inherently inferior."

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